Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books
John Christman, SSS
I admire Patrick Negri in the same way I admire the Italian Renaissance master Fra Angelico or the great Northern Sung landscape artist Fan K’uan. My admiration does not stem from their artistic achievement. Though both created awe inspiring art. Instead, it stems from each artist’s ability to harmonize their religious life and worldview with their particular mode of artistic expression. Fra Angelico was a Dominican monk who painted his faith into the frescoed walls of his monastery. Fan K’uan was a Buddhist monk who lived in nature and perfected the monumental ink paintings that exemplified the Neo-Confucian worldview. Each found a visual language to express their faith and found a deep union between art and religion in their lives. This harmony bears witness to an integrated life that makes their artwork all the more intriguing.
Patrick Negri was a Catholic priest in the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament from Australia who used abstract expressionist style to convey a spiritual message. Negri’s visual language was abstraction. He spoke beautifully about this when discussing the relationship between art and spirituality at a conference on the same subject held in Minneapolis. Negri had been commissioned to create four large paintings for a hospital chapel. They were to be inspired by the themes: absence, emptiness, presence, and fullness. He said, “abstraction is the way in which I tap into those challenging pockets of the human psyche that I dare to call religious, or, as the planners of this project put it, that ‘brush with the primal mysteries of life.’”1
Always one to be sensitive to the challenges that abstract imagery holds for many viewers, Negri wrote about abstraction at length, trying to open up its meanings to a wider audience. As he wrote in the introduction to his retrospective catalogue, “The meaning of a work of art is always discovered in the aesthetic encounter. That is where you come in. Enjoy the lines, the shapes, the colors. Float around in them. Grow angry, sing with joy, remember lost loves bask in the warmth of the new and, above all, laugh. For the world is a sorry place without a chuckle.”2
Consider his beautiful painting Wild Fuchsia (front cover and inside back cover). The brightly colored shapes seem to dance and swirl about the surface of the canvas. The earthy browns and dark purples slowly lift into an array of glimmering Spring-like yellows and greens. There is a celebratory atmosphere and an organic unfolding both in his process and in the finished image. You sense his delight in creativity and discovery. Nature never seems too far away from Negri’s imagery, as the painting and its title “Wild Fuchsia” would indicate. Negri himself observed of his work, “Often there are references to the created universe, the world of nature familiar to the viewer, but, like all abstract painters I regard each painting as a new creation worthy of acceptance in its own right.”3
The individual person’s unique response to God and creation, whether in paint, words, or ministry, this seems to undergird Negri’s theological work. In this he draws much from the Abstract Expressionist movement that inspired him. These artists were very concerned with artistic expression as the manifestation of the individual human being acting in response to the world around them. Some of them understood this in existentialist terms, painting as a heroic act in the face of the unknown and possibly absurd. Others saw it more as an expression of the human spirit open to the transcendent. Negri certainly saw it as an opening to the God of Jesus Christ. And in that he is unique, for his work takes on a decidedly more incarnational and communal dimension.
Take for example his painting “Teaching the Children.” This piece, like Wild Fuchsia was inspired by Negri’s visit to Uluru, a World Heritage site in the center of Australia. Uluru is considered a sacred place by the native people of Australia and besides the grandeur of its appearance contains numerous ancient paintings upon the rock formations. Negri wrote of his time there, “I found Alice Springs and Uluru especially places of deep spirituality. This was truly God’s country and everywhere I looked something, even the smallest grasses, announced the presence of a Great Spirit, a Creator God, who looked at our human struggle with compassion and love.”4 Visually, one recognizes Negri’s connection to a people, culture, and place, as he draws inspiration from the style and content of the art of this sacred place. In fact, much of his art incorporates the traditional “dot painting” one sees in Australian petroglyphs and folk art. In doing this, as well as painting overtly Christian subjects, Negri creates a much wider communal context to his abstractions. Here he expands beyond the traditional Abstract Expressionist tendency to focus in primarily upon the self and a sense of belonging emerges.
This communal dimension comes to the fore in his writing. A recent book, Salt and Light: Words of the Day, collects some of Negri’s exceptional homilies from throughout the three-year liturgical cycle. Interspersed among the homilies are photographs of his paintings, bringing together word and image. Negri’s homilies, like his paintings, are direct, creative and insightful. As a former provincial of the Australian province of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and the recipient of a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of California, Berkley, Negri was a well-read theologian and an inspiring Church leader. This makes his concise homilies enjoyable to read. Each is peppered with theological and cultural references that enrich the reader but also draws them deeper into the message and mission of Jesus. The liturgical and social justice emphases of the Second Vatican Council shine forth in his preaching. In these homilies Negri is always knee deep in the task of applying the message of the day’s readings to the current circumstances of those he is preaching to. In this endeavor he is anything but abstract, and therein lies the charm. Patrick Negri found a way of life to harmonize the many facets of his life and faith, and in doing so not only nourished others, but found fulfillment himself. An admirable accomplishment indeed.
1 P. Negri – A Retrospective, compiled and edited by Justin Emery and Randall Lindstrom, (Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, Australia, 2008) pg 56.
2 P. Negri – A Retrospective, title page quotation.
3 P. Negri – A Retrospective, pg. 29.
4 Patrick Negri, SSS, Artist’s Statement from the Painting Exhibit At the Centre: Memories of a Visit to Uluru. 2012.
Father Billy writes in his introduction that meditating on the “last things” has always been a part of Catholic spirituality. I remember in religious life that “meditation on preparation for death” was a part of our annual retreat. Billy also correctly remarks that in the pre-Vatican II Church these meditations were highly focused on our own sinfulness and failures and God’s judgement (not always in the most merciful terms).
The author believes that meditations on the last things is still a beneficial spiritual exercise. We all know that at some point in time we will each die. Then we shall face an accounting of how we have lived our lives: toward God and our fellow beings, with love or in self-centered repudiation of God.
Billy’s five chapters, in this short book (60 pages), take a close look at various aspects of our redemption: the death of Christ, the descent of Christ, the judgement of Christ, the destiny of Christ, and the four last things. As is obvious from these chapter titles, the book is clearly Christo-centric, which is critically important when we are dealing with our redemption.
In each chapter Billy takes a brief look at how each of these dimensions was viewed in the pre-Vatican II Church and how they might be better viewed today in terms of the theological shifts of the council. In one chapter he critiques the somewhat fearsome view of Christ as judge in the pre-Vatican II period, but he also takes some valid “jabs” at some of the excesses of the post-Vatican II period in which Jesus is “stripped” of all his juridical power and becomes our “friend.”
I believe that I am part of the 99% of Catholics in the pews who recite the line from the Apostles Creed, “he descended into hell,” with no understanding of the theological meaning behind that creedal statement. That chapter in Billy’s work is worth the price of the book.
I have recommended this book as the text of our parish’s Lenten Book Club. I look forward to the discussions that Billy’s insights will generate. I’m glad I picked it up and read it.
Patrick J. Riley, D. Min.
Book Review Editor
Anne and Jeffery Rowthorn have compiled an inspiring and challenging collection of fifty-three liturgies as they seek to recall the ecological basis of our faith tradition, redefine humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation, and engage the liturgical resources of Christianity to address planetary problems. The ecumenical liturgies, which marry science, religion and other fields of inquiry, are adaptable to numerous liturgical settings. They may be used individually or as a series.
Each liturgy follows a format of prayers of praise and thanksgiving, scripture, litany, reflections – drawn from scientists, theologians, prophets, sages, environmental activists, scholars, and nature writers – prayers of confession and intercession, and a final hymn. The reflections highlight the writings of Rachel Carson, Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Brian Swimme and a host of other prominent figures who help us understand our present environmental crisis and find a viable way forward. The sources used to create the liturgies are drawn from a wide spectrum of international and interfaith voices and the indexes of scripture passages, reflections, and hymns are a treasure in themselves for any liturgist.
The organization of the book itself is theologically rich as it moves from the gift and sacramentality of God’s creation, to the fall, through the abuse and destruction of nature, consumerism, climate change, poverty, hunger, migration, violence and war, to the prospect of hope and restoration. The Pascal Mystery unfolds through a progression of consequences, judgement and mercy, death and resurrection, and engenders hope that leads to action.
In The Universe Story (1992), eco-theologian Thomas Berry described the ‘liturgy of the cosmos’ as the universe celebrating itself. In God’s Good Earth, the universe also grieves its losses. Berry proposed that the historic challenges of the times call forth particular religious personalities in response. He suggested that the shaman — one who can mediate the revelation of the natural world — is the religious personality needed to lead us to a viable future. The Rowthorns have gathered many such voices, as well as their own, in this their deep and moving work. A rich treasure of liturgical resources, God’s Good Earth offers replenishment for those who are being called forth to provide spiritual leadership at this decisive moment in the universe story.
Emily DeMoor, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor: Theology
Director: Living & Leading in Love” Youth Theology Institute
It was a day like any other day;
No special feast to set the time apart.
The Mass he said like any other Mass;
The words too often spoken to be heard.
And I was there like any other time; half-listening, half-absorbed in fleeting thoughts.
“This is my body,” then he said, while looking at the bread;
“Oh take and drink; this is my blood,” he whispered to the wine.
And suddenly the words came shimmering alive, to draw me deep and high to the sacred side of
It’s sweeping me away; I can’t resist its waves; I’m carried from the shore I could not pass,
And I’m whole, and I’m real;
Oh don’t stop me now, for I’ve waited so long;
And I’m sure, and I’m free, Oh any time now the web’s gonna break
And I’m sure and I’m free.
Please don’t stop me now, for I’ve waited so long
To be; to
Sister Kay Kay, SSS